Large-scale computing needs government equipment, says government • The Registry

A report by the Government Office for Science proposed the formation of an internal team dedicated to large-scale computing, as it laments the nation’s weak reputation in the international supercomputing sector and makes a series of recommendations for improving things.

“This report presents the building blocks needed to create a world-class computer ecosystem,” asserted Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, “so that the UK can realize the true potential of large-scale computing and take advantage of this technology to strengthen its position as a scientific superpower.”

“The core of this report is based around seven challenging areas and options for overcoming each,” Vallance continued in the report’s preface. “The need for better national coordination; to nurture a healthy UK ecosystem; to ensure we have the right mix of hardware, skills and software; to minimize energy consumption; and the UK supply chain.”

There may be those who look at the report’s key recommendation with a suspicious eye, however: “Establish a team within government to take political responsibility for large-scale computing.” Such a move could give the government increased control over the future development of large-scale computing projects in both the public and private sectors.

“A large number of government departments and arm-length bodies have some responsibility or involvement with large-scale computing,” the report explained. “No single team within government has a general responsibility for coordinating large-scale computing policy.”

“The UK’s approach to computing is uncoordinated, introducing inefficiencies in procurement and limiting resource sharing,” the report continued. “It simply came to our notice then [proposed] team would have ownership of a policy for large-scale computing [and] would be responsible for developing a long-term roadmap for the large-scale computing ecosystem. “

Could a dedicated government team really push the industry forward?

“Yes,” said Simon Cox, a professor of computer methods at the University of Southampton and no stranger to building large-scale computer systems for academic research. The Registry. “The reason for this is that if you think about the infrastructure where the government has an understanding – take today’s newspapers and the gas industry, take today’s water industries, roads, railway infrastructure – it will be useful to set it up and set it up. [large-scale computing] on that platform as part of the infrastructure needed to explore. “

Regarding the composition of the proposed fact-finding team, the authors of the report suggested that it should consist of both government officials and officials from the public sector, private industry, and academia, relying on experts and providing a “forum for key users to share ideas and stay side by side with international trends “, while also” providing political leadership “to the government.

The team would also be given the task of addressing the seven challenging areas highlighted in the report – including reliance on foreign technology.

“It is unlikely that the UK will be able to compete in all areas of the supply chain,” the report acknowledged. “For example, entering the field of semiconductor manufacturing would require a multi-billion pound investment in a semiconductor foundry, which would be difficult to justify.

“However, the UK has the potential to become a leader in certain areas of the market. One area is the development and prototyping of new composite semiconductor technologies. Other areas where the UK is well placed to capitalize on future business opportunities include hardware targeting and new computing paradigms (such as neuromorphic computing and quantum computing). “

Despite the fact that the UK’s large-scale computing ecosystem lags behind those of other nations – with only 12 systems on the current TOP500 list (including the fastest system in the nation as built and maintained by US technology giant Nvidia), with those 12 systems representing only 1.4 percent of total performance capacity – the report stated “a strong case for continued public investment”, but only if “coupled with improved long-term strategic planning.”

The report also weighed in on the pros and cons of cloud computing, describing it as a “growing popular access model” that particularly attracts new users and smaller businesses – but warned that it is a market “currently dominated by a limited number of major vendors”. based in the United States. “

One of the biggest issues highlighted in the report, however, has little to do with the underlying technology itself. “There is a sharp shortage of large-scale computing professionals, including system architects, data engineers, systems operations professionals, and software engineers. [in the UK]”the report said.

“Exploitation of advanced computing requires skilled transdisciplinary teams. Within government and academia, career paths for computer professionals are often not well defined,” the report continued, recommending improved career paths including better job security, wage structures and progressive opportunities for existing ones. staff, opening the field wider with “non-graded entrances and retraining opportunities [such as] apprenticeships, traineeships, conversion courses, and continuing education. “

“Is there a lack of skills? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. It’s very difficult to recruit and retain staff,” Cox said, emphatically agreeing with the report’s push. He added that, “even speaking as a professor at Russell Group University,” non-grade routes could be a possible answer.

“The right message is there,” Cox concluded. “I think for the first time it reflects the true scope and depth across the UK. If you had read this kind of report two or three years ago, you might not have seen data so prominently mentioned. Data is part of the story.

“I gave a talk at an awards day, and I used that old phrase ‘data is the new oil,’ which is so manic and old now that you don’t think about it much. But you can’t talk about high-performance computing without adding data. , and I’ve seen more of that written through the report than I may have before.

“Next time, will there be more data in people’s minds? Maybe it’s me, being an academic, thinking ‘what would you do for the next version of such a report’? That’s not at all a critique of what’s written here, I think it’s a happy strong document. I’m glad to see where they came to understand a few things that had been on my mind for a few years. “

The report, as explained in a header on each page, “is not a statement of government policy”, and so far the government has not indicated which – if any – of its recommendations it intends to accept.

The full report can now be downloaded from GOV.UK. ®

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